Kittitas County health officer weighs in on recent CDC masking study

David Snyder, Staff Reporter

On Feb. 10, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study suggesting that how people mask up in public can significantly increase protection against coronavirus.

The CDC tested the effectiveness of double masking (wearing a cloth mask atop a surgical mask) as well as what’s called a “knot and tuck” technique, where the ear loops on a surgical mask are knotted to improve fit and reduce edge gaps.

The study found that double masking could block up to 85% of infectious particles, while knotting and tucking could block around 77%. When both the germ source and potential germ receiver use these masking techniques, exposure risk can decrease as much as 95%.

The same study looked at how cloth and unknotted surgical masks fared by themselves. Against a standard cough, the surgical mask blocked up to 56% of germ particles, while the cloth stopped 51%.  

Washington’s state-wide masking mandate has been in effect since May 23, 2020. According to Kittitas County Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson, this mandate might last until next winter. To lift the mandate, it’s possible over 70% of county residents would have to either be vaccinated or have had a previous COVID-19 infection.

However, Larson said double masking could be a “major game-changer” in speeding up the timeline toward normalcy if done effectively. 

“It certainly would lower the risk of the disease in our community,” Larson said. “The [CDC’s] data is pretty clear.”

According to the CDC, fitted N95 respirator masks can filter at least 95% of airborne particles. They effectively prevent germ exposure and dispersal, which is why the CDC recommends the current stockpile stay in the hands (or, to be technical, on the faces) of medical workers.

Larson said double masking is an option that, in terms of effectiveness against exposure, comes closer to fitted N95s than other standard masking techniques.

Another factor Larson said would play into lifting masking mandates is the rise of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, which appears to be more contagious and harmful than other variants. He said it’s likely it becomes the predominant strain in the United States by the end of March.

Larson indicated that concerns over the B.1.1.7 variant could explain why the CDC’s study, as well as other studies regarding mask fitting techniques, are now surfacing.  

“I’m sure that, at least on some level, the scientists that did these studies said ‘okay, well we’re going to have this much more contagious variant of the virus…what can we do for the general public to lower their risk?’” Larson said.

As of Feb. 19, the Kittitas County Public Health Department (KCPHD) hasn’t publicly recommended double masking or published anything regarding the CDC’s study. The county takes cues from state guidance before making those decisions.

According to Larson, the state endorsed the CDC’s guidance regarding masking on Feb. 16, so KCPHD will soon follow suit. He said that double masking would be a suggestion, not a mandate.  

Larson said if he could say anything to encourage people to double mask, it would be similar to his response to people hesitant about taking a vaccine.

“I would ask, ‘What’s the most important thing to you?’” Larson said. “[If you] want to get your kids back to school five days a week, I’d say, well, then you should get vaccinated … that would be the same thing I would say with masking.”